The Universe Is Telling Me Something

My family does not belong to a church, cult or club.  We are not atheists and we are not nihilists.  We may be agnostic but we’re not willing to commit to the definition.  We definitely believe in fate and we believe in the Universe.   If coincidence coincides with either of the former two, then we believe in coincidence.  Oh yeah, were animists too.

Why does this matter?  Because, life is hard.  We have to make choices and sometimes the choices paralyze us with their infinite amount of outcomes.  Your belief system  gives you the zeros and ones for your decision making circuitry.  Which brings me to Mr. Bean.   Mr. Bean, the character conceived and played by British actor Rowan Atkinson is contemporary Charlie Chaplin, his foibles acted out in pantomime.  Recently, Mr. Bean helped tip the balance in a decision I needed to make.

Here’s the backstory:  I was laid off in November.  My husband is at a start up oil & gas company and is working for free until they get financing.  There is no guarantee they will get financing.  We are living off my severance.   For a smart, sensible person, spending money on fancy trips, new cars or new clothes would seem a foolhardy scheme.  My husband and I are very sensible people and I am the spendthrift in our family.  BUT, my sister and her husband and son are going to France in June.  They live in Perth, Australia and my sister is finishing her articles in 6 weeks.  My brother-in-law is a native of Marseille and he will be visiting his family and taking his son, the history buff, to various WWII historical sites.  He used to be a tour guide; he loves organizing and touring around and he and his Marseille family would be very excited for us to visit.  I made a trip when I was 19 and my then future brother-in-law and his family were amazing hosts.  I have also not seen my sister or my nephew for more than two years.  I would be using our savings to go to France with my 8 year old and 3 year old (she turns 3 in May).  Going to France is insane right?  Except, the Universe started whispering in my ear.

It started with a documentary about the Barkley Marathon.  It is considered one of the world’s most difficult marathons and is based in Wartburg,Tennessee.  Only 16 people have finished since its inception in 1986.  The year of filming, 3 people finished.  What was particularly astonishing was the final finisher, Jared Campbell, stumbled to the finish with only 18 minutes to spare before the qualifying 60 hours ended.  It was a mind boggling  accomplishment for a him, revealing in interview clips he had embarked on a dramatic life change several years ago brought about by the simultaneous death of his father and a ten year relationship.  He had been raised to make safe choices and wait until after the house, career and kids before taking those long planned for adventures. But, the premature death of his own father one year before retirement crystallized his understanding of the folly of waiting.  Life isn’t just too short, it’s not guaranteed.

The following day, I was chatting with the Moms in front of the school. Spring break was starting in a couple of days and we were all sharing our plans.  Everyone has been affected in some way by the recession.  We all agreed we were staying home for the break but also considering if we should plan any trips for the year or if the expenditure was a bad idea.  One mother piped up, ” You can’t wait on these things.  I just had a friend die of brain cancer.  She was my age with children.  I have another friend with brain cancer.   She might not live another year.”  Damn.   The Universe was starting to talk louder now.

I was starting to look for flights at this point and my husband caught on with my sudden desire to brush up on French vocabulary. “J’aime le vin et fromage.”  Thank you Translator App.  My sensible husband was annoyed and slightly hostile to the idea but we’ve been together  12 years now so he also knew by the look in my eyes that it was probably going to happen. This is how it works:  I let him try to talk me out of something, essentially using him to help me make decisions while considering all the cons and eliminating emotional bias.  We go through this for several days and if I waffle or give in, then I wasn’t really that set on the idea or I realize it was a bad idea after all.  If I dig in my heels, then my husband knows it is important and and we proceed at that point.  It helps I’m pragmatic and frugal and rarely make frivolous decisions.  I did buy an antique armoire once on impulse that took up a third of the bedroom floor space and wasn’t deep enough to hold any hangers rendering it essentially useless.  I eventually sold it at a loss of $400.  It terms of life time fails, that armoire still ranks #1.

Eventually, the Universe brought in Mr. Bean.  The last night of school is family movie night.  Picking a PG movie that the kids and adults will both like is a feat in of itself.  I hate Disney (actually, I don’t hate Disney, I just can’t handle the emotionally draining moments of death – someone always dies) and I can tolerate Pixar but really, the kids wind up watching a lot of documentaries.  My son has knowledge of extremely esoteric subject matter.  Last night, only 2 minutes into our search on Netflix, there was an Aha! and Mr. Bean’s Holiday was chosen.  I had never watched it before, didn’t even bother reading the premise but I knew Mr. Bean wouldn’t swear or shoot anyone.   And guess what?  Mr. Bean wins a holiday….to the south of France.  There is landscape porn throughout the whole movie and two times my toddler yelled out, “I want to go there!”  Okay, Universe.  I get it.

So, the travel agent is starting to look for flights.  My husband said it was okay (but he will have to work -and live like a bachelor for three weeks).  If all goes well, we leave May 28th.  And if coincidence has anything to do with it, I’ll see Rowan Atkinson running by in a Marseille marathon, right where he should be.

 

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I Wish Bill Murray Was My Dad

The best dream I ever had was about five years ago.  I walked into a delicatessen with linoleum squares of white and green and a few round tables with a scattering of black chairs.  Sitting at one of the tables was my dad, Bill Murray.  He greeted me with a warm hug and we sat down and had a great chat over a great cup of coffee.  Soon, my other dad, William Shatner arrived, kissed Bill on the cheek and sat down beside him.  The dream was short but the feeling of warmth and goodwill lingered after I woke up.   I don’t have a secret desire for two gay dads but the dream resolved a mutual admiration for both actors.  I have read enough magazine articles about both men to guess that Bill is a no nonsense kind of dad, affectionate but not indulgent and Will is charming in a self-aggrandizing kind of way- the parent that would likely get the eye rolls from the kids.   I imagine they would be a dynamic power couple, both charismatic and rambunctious; dinner guests would be left roiling on the carpeted floor as the two men fed each other lines, their cheeks rosy with wine and good humor.

Bill Murray has received an iconic status of late.   I have seen stenciled silhouettes of his face on T-shirts and on vehicle decals.  He has become cool for a hipster race of Gen Y’s and Millennials that watched Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day and Saturday Night Live before his sublime casting in Lost in Translation.  His morbid detachment – the stone face is his coup de grace in high brow and low brow theatrics -is the zeitgeist of an overstimulated populous with an unrelenting social media feed of Donald Trump, Middle Eastern terror groups, and YouTube stars.  He is the de facto guy everyone wants to hang out with while we wait out the maelstrom.

William Shatner looks like my Mom.  He really, really looks like my maternal side of the family.  The bulbous nose framed by padded red cheeks and wide, large eyes is a hallmark of my mother’s family.  He was also born in Canada and is an alumnus of my alma mater, McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.  That’s pretty much where the similarities end but it really helps to have a few similarities when you idolize someone.  Why would anyone idolize William Shatner, you say?  Well, he has a lot of spunk; he’s still working at 84 years.  He has a sassy kind of appeal – he told his loyal Star Trek fans to get a life (let’s be honest they needed to hear it) but he also humbled down by 2011 to address an audience at McGill University and told them: “Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be afraid of making an ass of yourself. I do it all the time, and look what I got.”  And let’s be honest, any person who has the cajones to release multiple spoken word albums that are actually good, has my respect.

On introspection,  why does a 37 year old woman look up to older men for life guidance?  What happened to my own parents?  What happened to Gloria Steinem for feminist idealism or Kristy Wiig for witty realism (or  is it raunchy realism?)?  Let’s face it, we rarely fantasize about being our parents.  We spend half our lives trying to make improvements on their model with later epiphany we are maddeningly similar.  As women we are attuned to the flaws of other women.  That is why we get dressed up for a night out with the gals but don’t even bother to shave when it’s date night with our husbands.  We are always trying to impress other women hence the new skirt and freshly cut hair.  Women are women’s biggest critics.  Men are happy we’re warm and smell like soap.  If you happen to have shaved, they interpret it as open for business.   Some social anthropologist will say something to the effect this is an attempt to place us higher in the social pecking order as to appear more attractive to a potential mate.  I think women are just plain jerks.  Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of really great friends that are supportive and kind.  But, we are all competing all of the time.   We offer up ourselves as exemplars of wifery, motherhood and professional elitism when our girlfriends suffer self-doubt.   This is where the foundations are laid as future mother-in-laws.  We all know the universality of mother-in-laws. They take your 20’s self delusions of grandeur and knock them down a peg or two.  If you are awesome friends with your mother-in-law you need to entertain the possibility she a)is an alien b)is a man disguised as a woman or c)does not have a competitive bone in her body and can be classified as a subspecies of jellyfish.

So yeah, I think it would be awesome if Bill Murray and William Shatner were my dads. Perhaps their example of self-effacing humor and light banter would make me a better person.  I might be less inclined to judge other people’s follies and laugh more at my own.  And, for my future daughter-in-law and son-in-law, I send you a  wish:  that visits from your future mother-in-law are whimsical and fun; that my padded cheeks are rosy and filled to the brim with good humor and kindness. And if you have delusions of grandeur, I promise to bring you back to earth.

 

Cruel Shoes

I have a two year old daughter.  She will be three in three months and what I find remarkable is how enamored she is with beautiful things.  This is not a girl thing per se as I have distinct memories of my son adorning himself with gaudy faux diamond bracelets and Mardi Gras beads until the little girls in his daycare harassed him about wearing jewellery.  They clearly thought bling was exclusive fashion for females but I was okay with it because I had seen rappers get away with giant festoons of gold around their necks.  It was also a great way to get rid of all the tacky jewellery I had been given.  Your mother-in-law can’t begrudge an uber cute three year old boy tromping around the house wearing the bear claw necklace she gave you.

I was a little girl once and there are pictures of me in dresses but I also remember my older sister begging me to wear them.  She was six years older and nothing pleased her more than tying my hair up in little ponytails or braids and dressing me up in scarves, dresses and bows.  The rest of the time I was happy to roam in jeans and shirts and to this day, people are surprised when I show up to Christmas parties with makeup on.   Which is why I’m so intrigued by my daughter.  She  insists dresses are de rigueur daily wear.  She is an unabashed mugger with sunglasses on and can’t fathom why her black velvet slippers aren’t practical for a blizzard.

Steve Martin came up with a great skit back in the 70’s to lampoon women’s painful obsession with fashion.  Here’s an excerpt:

“Carlo disappeared into the back room for a moment, and then reappeared carrying an ordinary shoe box. He took off the lid and removed a hideous pair of black and white pumps. But this was not an ordinary pair of black and white pumps; both were left feet, one had a right angle turn with separate compartments that pointed the toes in impossible directions. The other shoe was six inches long and was curved inward like a rocking chair with a vise and razor blades to hold the foot in place.

Carlo spoke hesitantly, ‘Now you see…they’re not fit for humans.’

‘Put them on me.’

‘But…’

‘Put them on me!’

Carlo knew all arguments were useless. He knelt down before her and forced the feet into the shoes.

The screams were incredible.

Anna crawled over to the mirror and held her bloody feet up where she could see.

‘I like them.'”

Full disclosure:  I love, love shoes.  If I had unlimited wealth, I would be that woman with three walk in closets full of shoes.  I am also a size 11 which is a cruel twist in nature’s imperative to have me beautify for a mate.  I am very proud of a pair of gold sneakers with Chinese embroidery on the side.  I wear these to the theater to fit in with the cool artist types.

I suppose it is somewhat hereditary that my daughter loves, loves her little brown cowboy boots.  We were in Nashville last spring and we discovered that not only is this a magnificently cool city with a great vibe and an amazing music scene but it is also a great place to buy three cowboy boots for the price of one.  They need some way of attiring the masses in country uniform and I’m guessing this is the cheapest place on earth to buy leather boots.  That is saying a lot from a gal from Calgary, Alberta – host to the world famous Calgary Stampede and major shopping hub in cowboy country.   We bought one pair for our little girl and two pairs for our son because my son seemed enthralled by the boots and we weren’t sure if our daughter would find them comfortable.  My son settled on a brown pair and red pair (but only after confirming with sales staff that the red pair were boy’s boots – sales staff are not going to crush the enthusiasm of a seven year old boy in a town that thrives on dreams).   It was nearly impossible to take those brown little boots off of her.  I didn’t know a two year old could strut but she sure did.   It was only the Canadian winter that forced those boots off her finally.

We have had an unseasonably warm February this year.  There were more days above + 5C in a month which usually sees temperatures below -5C.  The snow has all melted and the ice rinks are slushy pools.  My daughter came to me a week ago and asked if she could wear her cowboy boots. “They make me feel good,” she said.  Who can argue with that?  We got her boots and she started putting them on.  Except, 9 months had passed and she had grown.  With a squinty look of pain, she forced her left foot into the boot.  I asked,”Are you in pain?” “No.” She let out a gaspy breath as she forced the right foot into the other boot.  I asked, “Are they comfortable?” “Yes.”  She hobbled out the door with a smile on her face.  I knew what this meant. The cowboy boots had become her Cruel Boots.  She wore them for one hour before she discarded them and ran around in socks.  But, it didn’t stop her from putting them on the next day. Or the day after.

In three months it will be her birthday.  I am buying her a new pair of cowboy boots and the Cruel Boots will quietly disappear.  I suspect there will be other cruel shoes and I will continue to nudge my daughter to more humane choices.  That is my job. Everyone has their cruel shoes; those beautiful impractical things that imperil our common sense and make us feel good.  The trick is knowing when to caste them off and run around free.

 

 

How HR Destroyed the World

If you’ve ever held a job in a corporation you will understand color discrimination.  I’m not talking about the racial stereotyping of skin color.  I’m talking about discrimination in the  color wheel spectrum: yellow, red, green, and blue.   Yes, you there, the one who took the Myers-Briggs or The Birkman Method or some other official sounding personality test they sprung on you before they  would agree to hire you or just before they decided on a round of layoffs or the one they proffered before beginning your career transitioning services, parlance for professional grief counseling.

The origin of these tests were based on subjective clinical observation and not based on controlled scientific studies.  The personalities, parsed down to four from 16-32 depending on the origin of the psychological underpinning, assume the administrator of the test has adequately identified the major archetypes in a specific job category.  Which brings us to problem #2:  the idea a person’s personality is static.  Environment provides a contextual backing for one’s perceptions and reactions.  I was a much happier and outgoing ‘blue’ person at my last job than two jobs ago when I was micromanaged by the CEO’s son who had just graduated from university.  They also stuck me in a small office with no windows that was a converted supply room.  At that time I was an introverted ‘green’ person that avoided social situations and felt hostile towards authority.

The ubiquity of personality tests and the people who have taken them is evident in people’s introductions:  “I am a predominately blue person with yellow tendencies but in reality I’m actually an introvert masking as an extrovert.”  Uh?  The last test I took started with: “You are a complex and unique individual….”  but the results were computer generated so I suspect the algorithm thinks all humans are complex and unique.  In the end I was unable to decipher the major differences in character traits of the different color codes.  There were a whole lot of adjectives that seemed as easily applicable to a puppy or a carrot.  Easily approachable, check.  Easily consumed, check.

In modern corporate speak, quantifying a person’s value is a good thing.  It takes out bias and it attributes value to departments like I.T. or H.R. that support professionals with working computers and a biweekly payroll deposit.  For big corporations with hundreds or thousands of people, there is almost always a formal procedure for determining bonuses and pay raises.  It is usually a calculation based on performance evaluations from coworkers and/or managers in addition to a corporate target that either augments or negates the individual’s contributions.  But personality tests fall into a dangerous realm not only because the user’s answers are subjective and easily manipulated by mood but because the person holding the results, who often are not trained psychologists but HR personnel with certificates in office administration, apply judgement with impunity.   In a perfect world an industrial psychologist would take the results and use them in conjunction with other reporting methods to determine if there are significant behaviours that could impede performance.  In the same way, under Canadian Alberta employment law a person cannot be dismissed for being an alcoholic, to avoid any chance of litigation, proactive steps would need to be taken to provide counseling or  training to the employee.

Recently, I had coffee with a friend who had survived multiple rounds of layoffs at a struggling oil & gas company.  Shortly before one layoff, after three years in which half the work force had been laid off, personality tests were administered.  As coworkers are apt to do, people had divulged their color coding.  My friend made the observation, anecdotal but nonetheless disturbing, that all the people dismissed  were from the green group.  One should question the necessity of any personality test before layoffs for the reasons mentioned above.   In this scenario, after the fatigue of multiple sorting and ranking of personnel, it would seem HR fell back on plain and simple color discrimination.

Next time I am trapped in a networking event and I am asked which color I belong to, I will plant my feet squarely, look him or her in the eye and say “I’m a goddamn rainbow.”  Refuse to be boxed into a category.  Be as complex and unique as you need to be because if we don’t insist on our individuality, we become manufactured personas.  I think humanity deserves better if not only for the simple enjoyment of better coffee companions.